CALLUM WILSON (@CallumWilsonSJ) shares his verdict on Saturday's crunch UEFA World Cup qualifying clash between Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland in Baku.
Azerbaijan v Northern Ireland | Saturday 17:00 | Sky Sports
Michael O’Neill has exceeded expectations as Northern Ireland manager, there are no two ways about it.
Appointed in 2011, few had ludicrous assumptions that the national side would have the almost meteoric rise they’ve endured over the last six years, but qualification for last year’s Euros was the proverbial mark of distinction that will be remembered from O’Neill’s reign.
What’s more impressive, however, was the way the culminated as a team, devoid of any real stand out star-player, and more than played their part in France.
Under O’Neill’s stewardship, the Green and White Army have been revolutionised into a frills-free, hard-work and determination type of side that the likes of Scotland can only dream of.
They haven’t started off their 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign off to shabby either. Back in November 2016, O’Neill’s men put four past their weekends opponents Azerbaijan without reply, and followed it up with a routinely solid 2-0 win at home to Norway.
On the other hand, this weekend’s opponents have had a rather lacklustre start to qualifying for Russia. Nothing is a better indicator of this that their slender 1-0 win over minnows San Marino in their opener for the qualifying campaign.
Northern Ireland and their multitude of scorers
What’s interesting about this current crop of Northern Ireland players, is that it is less dependent on the individual and far more about the team as a collective.
The Green and White Army’s last six goals in qualifying have all came from different players, with Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, Conor McLaughlin, Chris Brunt, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward chipping in respectively.
The variety and the goals from different areas of the pitch is a huge advantage for O’Neill’s men, and means they are so much less reliant on an individual superstar performing.
Northern Ireland have only lost once in their previous five encounters with Azerbaijan, winning two and drawing the other two. Colloquially known as the Milli in their home country, Azerbaijan suffered their heaviest international defeat since 2014 when Northern Ireland stuck four past them last time around.
Azerbaijan should not be discredited, but are not on form
After a rock-solid start to the campaign, not conceding a goal in their first three matches, things have gone down-hill rapidly for Azerbaijan.
In their last two World Cup qualifiers alone, they’ve shipped no less than right times whilst playing competitive football.
Their top-scorer throughout the entire squad, Elvin Mammadov, has a paltry seven goals for the national team, and indicates a lack of consistent goal scorer.
The betting angles
There are a multitude of variables to consider when looking at betting angles on this game.
In fact, the difference of 3,300+ miles of travel cannot go ignored, coupled with the fact that O’Neill’s side have struggled to score in their previous four away World Cup qualifiers – I’m not expecting this to be an action packed, goal-a-minute bonanza.
I’m immediately drawn to ‘No’ on the Both Teams To Score market, currently sitting at 4/6 with BetStars, as I really don’t expect this to be a classic. Northern Ireland’s failure to get on the scoresheet away from home is a real concern for me, and Azerbaijan are incompetent in-front of goal to say the least.
If this game is at Windsor Park, I think it goes down entirely differently. However, I think the teams are incredibly well matched considering the match is in Baku, and I as a slightly more optimistic punt I like both the draw and 0-0 at 21/10 (Bet365) and 5/1 (BetVictor) respectively.